This is for Mary–my gentle friend and sister to my soul.
Like a lot of us these days, you long to understand why our nation is so polarized now, at a time when, as you quite rightly say, “both ‘sides’ need to listen to each other!” I know you mean it when you ask me to “comment” on your worries. Still, I hesitate.
For one thing, I used up all my weekend brainpower making up the song list for yesterday’s radio show with Henry. I chose songs that depict what I might as well call “the male predicament”: songs about what it might mean to be a “strong man” in our society, and they included as many points of view as I could fit into a two-hour show–from Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” to Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us” (a sweet rap about fatherhood). It was a lot of fun, and it also, come to think of it, served as yet another experiment in compassion, for both Henry and me. Thus, all weekend (and, what the hell, all my life) I’ve been groping with the very question implicit in your facebook post: how do we empathize with people who see the world from angles completely foreign (and all too often repugnant) to our own?
For the show, Henry and I each chose a song from our childhoods that exemplified for us, in those old days, the “ideal” man or woman. It turns out that, when I was a kid, my ideal man was epitomized by Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Henry’s childhood dream-date, meanwhile, lies captive within the lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” We played both those songs and then talked about our picks. My childhood’s ideal was a huge, physically omnipotent man–more “icon” than “human”–who remained a stranger to everyone who met him, who never spoke or expressed an emotion, whom other men worshiped but also feared, and who ended up sacrificing his unknowable life in order to save the lives of his crew. Henry’s ideal, meanwhile, was a woman of endless love and loyalty who never questioned her own dull premise: that the opposite sex is no more than a walking catalog of selfish and incomprehensible behavior that must always, always be found acceptable.
No wonder we grew up so screwy. Both songs are great, I think, and certainly both embrace such virtues as loyalty, strength, self-sacrifice, even love. Otherwise, though, look at the picture. Henry–I think he’ll concede this point–is not Big Bad John, nor would I ever want him to be. After all, thank heaven Big John died young, because, wow, just imagine how boring he’d be to grow old with. Meanwhile, I became a “stand by your man” sort of woman only once I fully realized that I’d finally found a man worth standing by–a man who, not coincidentally, stands by me too.
Henry and I have walked a long tough road to get to this place of (relative) equilibrium. And I mention it, I guess, because it’s the same sort of road we all have to walk, every day, all our lives. In our 30-year marriage (which, for years, we’ve dubbed “The Endless Conversation”), Henry and I have never allowed ourselves (much less each other) a place to plant our feet and say, “This is as far as I go.” No, like it or not, we just keep on moving–evolving, regressing, evolving again… In each of us, you see, there’s still that little kid self-haunted by gender rules that don’t really fit anybody, much less the peculiar likes of us. We’re each still self-taunted by absurd but bone-deep archetypes we were taught to want or to become, but which simply don’t make sense anymore, if they ever made sense at all. It’s a tightrope path–this trek toward mutual sanity–but we keep stumbling along it, if only because we’ve left ourselves, and in doing so have left each other, with no other choice.
Anyway, my point (and I do have one!) is that America is like a marriage. We have to keep talking and listening, empathizing with the other’s pain while never letting go of our own best values, and never ever feeling too afraid to challenge anything that seems to us intrinsically wrong and/or absurd. It’s almost certainly true that, as your post suggests, “both sides” of America (though there are really many more than just two sides, of course) need, metaphorically speaking, to meet with a marriage counselor and talk this whole thing out like reasonable adults. As to whether it’s simply too late for that, or whether it’s never ever too late–I honestly don’t know. All I do know is that our national therapist has her work cut out for her, because America’s disagreements this time are so huge and so personal that the gap between us seems unbridgeable.
Here’s a strange and more or less unprecedented fact of my lifetime: The rise of DJT (I still can’t say his name–that’s how deep this goes for me) seems actually to have made half the country physically ill. Everywhere I listen or read, I hear from people who feel like they’ve been “kicked in the teeth,” who live with a “knot” in their throat, or a “permanent migraine,” or a fear so primal it keeps them from remembering what hope, much less patriotism, used to feel like. As for me, the election’s impact was just as visceral. It plunged me (almost literally) back into a moment when I was six years old, playing in the yard, and Paul K., a kid from down the block, came over to where I stood (I was singing “Que Sera Sera” and braiding dandelions through my hair), and punched me–really hard–in the stomach. (His irrefutable explanation: “I always wanted to see what it felt like to punch somebody in the stomach.”)
This isn’t normal. That is, I don’t normally feel punched in the stomach when my candidate loses. Even eight years of George W. Bush (who was, to my mind, a dangerous idiot) never made me feel the way I feel now. And the fact that (at least) half the country feels similarly–that we’re suddenly bonded by a shared sense of deeply personal violation–has given me a mirror worth looking into as deeply as I can.
As I write to you, my mind keeps returning to a thought I’ve heard a lot lately–something along the lines of “If you’re not worried these days, you’re simply not paying attention.” And that thought leads me to memories of other American moments that deserved more attention than I could afford to pay at the times they happened. Basically, I was so busy fixing the holes Hannah made by ramming her head into walls, that I barely had time to notice holes in our economy, holes in the ozone layer, holes in our democracy itself. But for better and worse I’m less busy these days, so I can afford to spread my compassion a bit further than my own battered living room. It may be, in fact, that I actually have space in my heart now for all of America–not only for my family and the other tribes I belong to, and not only for that much larger group of Americans–people of color, Muslims, Latinos, Jews, the disabled, the poor, the LGBT community, other women (in short, the usual suspects) who will be hurt far more deeply than I will by this deeply anti-American moment.
But my heart makes room, too (for it’s been stretched out a lot over the years), for the people who’ve been shoved by economic and societal changes into a despair so deep and self-contemptuous that they can’t help but long for scapegoats (see the above list) and saviors (see who they’ve chosen; see who and what the man they’ve chosen is choosing). I’m talking here about an underclass of people so seldom acknowledged, so often ridiculed, so little valued that this election seemed to them, as I’ve come to read and understand, their last and only “chance to be heard” before they drown.
For such people, the American dream has turned nightmare, and I think I know a tiny bit about how that might feel. It’s true, they’ve made a terrible mistake–in brief: they’ve elected someone who will almost certainly make their hard lives even worse–but I’ve been where they are, and done what they’ve done. In times of my own despair, I’ve longed for both scapegoats (who, in my case, took the form of benighted doctors, quack therapists, a country that refuses to support its neediest citizens), and saviors (e.g., that cohort of fraudulent or well-intentioned “experts” who assured me they could “cure” or at the very least “help” my daughter).
I can interpret the voice of that underclass, I think, even when it emerges as a primal howl. I can feel the terror on “both sides” as we confront a future that’s left both feeling, as the catchword says, “disenfranchised.” We both, we all, feel so deeply betrayed by our country these days–that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? And now, or anyway soon, we need to work together–somehow–to actually build the America so eloquently and emptily promised to us by our founders, the “ideal” America we all pledged to believe in when we were kids.
In all honesty, the only group of voters I still can’t understand are the ones who voted for Trump and then, having quickly locked their car doors from the inside, drove safely home to gated communities, comfortable homes, successful careers, and a whole lot of money they’d just as soon, thank you very much, not pay taxes on. These are the only members of “the other side” I still need to hear from, in fact–but they’ve been keeping their thoughts to themselves, at least when I’m in the room. (Occasionally they break their silence to shout, “I’m not a racist!” but that’s as far as the conversation’s gone, so far.) Such smart but tiny-hearted people, it turns out, are also part of the family I hold in my heart, and have been holding, all along. Which is maybe why they scare me most of all.
So, anyway, that’s my comment, I guess.
Much, much love,